I suddenly thought that a good name for a Spanish coffee shop would be Café Olé (or maybe Cafe ¡Olé!). Not surprisingly, other people (Spanish or not) have already thought the same thing (search and you will find). But I wonder how many other instances of café olé on the internet are mistakes for café au lait. The two are pronounced more-or-less identically in English. Spanish  has /leɪ/ but French has /le/, not that many English speakers can correctly pronounce the difference. 



A colleague emailed to say that her son was taking her to a dental appointment at 2.30. 

Tooth-hurty – geddit?

It’s an old joke, and no-one responded with exactly that, because she’d alluded to it in her email. Another colleague replied that her son was obviously driving her to extraction. 

There are approximately 6,000 to 7,000 languages in the world and I would guess that this joke works in approximately one of them, and then only because of questionable grammar. In Korean, for example, 2.30 is 세시 삼십분 (se-shi sam-ship-bun) and tooth hurts is 이가 아파요, which obviously don’t sound anything like each other. 

무슨 이? 이 이!

whine bar

In a nearby town, I saw a

whine bar

Checking on the internet just now, I found that it is (as I suspected) a wine bar. Does the owner encourage whining, in either sense? Either way, it wouldn’t be a fun place.

Edison Denisov

I chanced on a reference to a Russian composer named Edison Denisov, about whom I know nothing other than his name, which is … almost an anagram. In fact, his middle name (patronymic) is Vasilievich, so Edison V Denisov is an anagram. (Vasili Denisov was a scientist.) As far I understand Cyrillic, it doesn’t work in Russian: the Э of his first name and the е of his second are different letters – Эдисо́н В Дени́сов. (The acute accent on a different letter in each name serves to mark stress, and doesn’t make a different letter.)

I must listen to some of his music sometime.

“I dain you”

A character in a professionally-produced video drama (no names, no blames) said deign, but the subtitles had dain. Realistically, I have to call that a mistake, but an online search found The Century Dictionary, which I was previously unaware of but which seems to be a major and authoritative (if slightly outdated) source. It records dain as an archaic spelling of deign, so maybe the subtitler was just being archaic rather than wrong, except the video drama is set in modern times, everyone speaks standard US English and the subtitles are otherwise 99.95% correct (there are a few slips, but no others worth commenting about). It also records dain as a shortened form of disdain, but it doesn’t give an example of either use. 

I was surprised to find that deign and disdain share an etymology, despite the different spelling. Anglo-French de(s)deigner became Middle English disdainen, while Old French deignier became Middle English deinen, but at some point people reinserted the ‘g’ to reflect the Latin dignus (worthy) and dignārī (to judge worthy).

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Benedetto Ingombranteinfornata

Various articles (for example) have been written as to why the name Benedict Cumberbatch can survive being transformed into Bandersnatch Cummerbund, Bandycoot Cumbersnatch, Bendandsnap Candycrush and more.

Recently, a Facebook friend posted a link to a series of photos rendering famous actors’ names into (supposed) Italian, sometimes based on sound and sometimes on meaning (which I didn’t bookmark, so I can’t link to. Seek and you will find). Among them is Benedetto Ingombranteinfornata. Say what? Google Translate doesn’t recognise Ingombranteinfornata, instead suggesting Ingombrante infornata, which it translates as bulky goods. Ingombrante by itself is cumbersome and infornata is batch. Continue reading

How many sheep?

My mother’s father was fond of wordplay and was an important influence on my love of language. I remember one of the riddles he told me, which is difficult to render in print: A man had twenty-si/kʃ/heep and ten died. How many did he have left? This is impossible to answer correctly. If I interpreted twenty-si/kʃ/heep as twenty-six sheep and answered sixteen, he would say, “No, I said ‘twenty sick sheep’, so he had ten left”. And vice versa.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when a lesson in the textbook included the linking of words in normal speech. One example was first of all, and one student said that it sounded like festival. In isolation, maybe, but not in a sentence like “Festival, I would like to welcome you all here today”.

The pronunciation issues are slightly different but similar enough that I told them the riddle and wrote the two interpretations on the board. Another student thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. In English, at least. I’m sure they have silly puns in that language.